🔮 How to make nuclear energy safe & affordable
Nuclear power has been awaiting its zenith for decades now, struggling with public perception, regulation and cost for many years. I’ve been fascinated by the prospects of nuclear fission as a source of energy since I was a child, and to dig further into the changing landscape I spoke with Troels Schönfeldt, CEO and co-founder of Seaborg Technologies. I also covered nuclear fission in this week’s edition of Charts of the Week.
Hailing from Denmark and schooled in the field of nuclear physics, Troels is building Seaborg with the intention of providing clean power anywhere in the world. Listen to our full discussion here.
The big idea
Nuclear fission reactors work by splitting atoms, which then release energy in the form of heat and radiation. Existing models rely on three variations of water-cooled fission, including pressurised, boiling, and pressurised-heavy water reactors. We’re beginning to see the next generation innovating with different forms of coolants outside of water. Seaborg in particular is developing a molten salt reactor (MSR), which can create nuclear energy efficiently while producing very little waste. The nuclear fuel is a uranium-based fluoride salt.
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Seaborg’s approach is based on the fundamentals of physics and chemistry, meaning that safety is baked into the physics and chemistry of its reactors. The reactor cannot meltdown or explode. It operates at atmospheric temperatures and does not produce explosive gases. We dig into this in greater detail in the podcast.
This inherent safety starts to solve the compliance problems that nuclear reactors face on a governmental scale – safety is intrinsically included in the design.
For some countries renewable energy is not an option due to environmental conditions: for example, in Southeast Asia, where there is intermittent sun, almost no wind, no high altitude water power, and no viable geothermal. Their only choices are coal, gas, or nuclear.
Seaborg is acting on this challenge by developing a nuclear reactor on a barge – essentially, a plant on a ship with no engine. The facility is built, transported by water to wherever it must go, and can then supply power to the grid.
Will nuclear energy ever be made too cheap to meter?
Troels argues that the trade-off is resilience to the grid, citing an example in California where “we could supply the energy supply security that they crave, stabilizing the solar grid. That will be more expensive than the solar, because they can do incredibly cheap solar there”. Cost becomes a complicated number to pin down as factors such as type, location, demand, and population are enumerated.
Seaborg addresses this challenge by starting with its compact design, operating economically at a small scale. The CMSR is small and can fit in a 20-ft container and is efficient at 250/100 MW. Because molten salt fission is a relatively simple process, it enables unprecedented compactness - yet can power 200,000 homes at once.
The future of nuclear reactors with Seaborg may be approaching as soon as 2028. Troels suggested that “we just need to make it cheap enough that people would want it, and then we need to make it scalable”. As these steps are taken, the outlook of nuclear energy may indeed change the infrastructure for our power consumption.
How to Make Nuclear Energy Safe (with Seaborg's Troels Schönfeldt)
Danish startup Seaborg Technologies has a blueprint for the future of power that uses a new type of nuclear reactor.